Mammalian herbivore breath alerts aphids to flee host plant

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Mammalian herbivores profoundly influence plant-dwelling insects [1]. Most studies have focused on the indirect effect of herbivory on insect populations via damage to the host plant [2,3]. Many insects, however, are in danger of being inadvertently ingested during herbivore feeding. Here, we report that pea aphids (Acyrthosiphon pisum) are able to sense the elevated heat and humidity of the breath of an approaching herbivore and thus salvage most of the colony by simultaneously dropping off the plant in large numbers immediately before the plant is eaten. Dropping entails the risk of losing the host plant and becoming desiccated or preyed upon on the ground [4,5], yet pea aphids may sporadically drop when threatened by insect enemies [6]. The immediate mass dropping, however, is an adaptation to the potential destructive impact of mammalian herbivory on the entire aphid colony. The combination of heat and humidity serves as a reliable cue to impending mammalian herbivory, enabling the aphids to avoid unnecessary dropping. No defensive behavior against incidental predation by herbivores has ever been demonstrated. The pea aphids' highly adaptive escape behavior uniquely demonstrates the strength of the selective pressure large mammalian herbivores impose on insect herbivores.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)R628-R629
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number15
StatePublished - 10 Aug 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


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